Bungei Shunju (“literary spring and autumn”) is arguably Japan’s most prestigious monthly magazine. Emblazoned in celebratory red across the cover of its New Year’s edition is the rather ominous headline, “The Day the Heisei (Era) Ends.”

The eponymous 12-page article was written by Manabu Oshima, a reporter for the Sankei newspaper.

The article focuses on matters of imperial succession, and its timing is hardly surprising. The Emperor, who turned 78 on Dec. 23, was hospitalized for three weeks in November with bronchial pneumonia. A cancer survivor, the increasingly frail monarch nonetheless put in the busiest year of his 23-year reign, making numerous helicopter flights to console survivors in disaster-stricken areas since March 11.

Oshima points out, however, that as long as the current law recognizing only males as imperial heirs remains in effect, when the current Crown Prince becomes Emperor, his former rank will become vacant, since he has no male offspring.

The Emperor’s hospitalization also raised fresh concerns over whether Crown Princess Masako would be able to assist her husband in rituals and public duties. This, he asserts, “is a major issue for the imperial household’s next generation.”

In December 2003, Masako was hospitalized with shingles, and the following July was diagnosed as having an “adjustment disorder,” which is defined as “a condition in which a person responds to a stressful event with extreme emotions and actions that cause problems at work and home.” She has since drastically curtailed her public appearances.

But Shukan Shincho (Jan. 5-12) disputes that diagnosis, instead suggesting she suffers from dysthymic disorder, a form of chronic mild depression whose symptoms include withdrawal from daily life. The article cites a former official at Togu Palace (the crown prince’s residence) as saying Masako’s inability to adapt to the role expected of her began in the 1990s.

“Several years before her pregnancy, the couple toured a regional city, where the local economic situation was discussed,” the source is quoted as saying. “There were exchanges of opinions with metropolitan and prefectural officials, followed by a meal. The next day, the princess said, ‘I never wish to attend that kind of gathering again.’

“It was upon hearing this that I strongly recall the sense of incompatibility stemming from basic differences in her understanding from those of the imperial family,” he said.

Among the recurring and overlapping stories leaking from Togu Palace have been reports of turf battles among the staff. Over the past five years some 13 have left their positions — a rate of attrition described as “abnormal” by the media. One female steward resigned after two and a half years, allegedly due to differences with the Crown Princess over how to deal with an alleged bullying problem by a male classmate that led to Princess Aiko’s refusing to attend her primary school.

Shukan Bunshun (Dec. 29) reported that the latest to depart Togu Palace was lord steward Issei Nomura, who was expected to have retired yesterday, Dec. 31. A former ambassador to the Soviet Union, Nomura had known the Crown Princess since her childhood. He had been under criticism for what some viewed as overly solicitous treatment of the Crown Princess.

“In the closed environment of Togu Palace, human relationships have become difficult,” one of the palace press corps members observed.

The media is virtually unanimous in the view that Masako has been giving priority to her daughter, to the point that many regard as being overprotective, and at the expense of other activities.

Shukan Bunshun (Jan. 5-12) noted that in contrast with the Emperor and Empress, who paid their first consolation visit to the earthquake stricken region in early April, the Crown Prince and Masako held off their first journey to Miyagi Prefecture until June 4, a Saturday. Subsequent visits were scheduled on weekends and the summer vacation months, so as not to conflict with Princess Aiko’s school schedule.

In addition to criticisms for accompanying her daughter on a two-night school class excursion to Lake Yamanaka in September, the media also took note of Masako’s cancellation of a visit to the Emperor during his hospitalization for pneumonia.

On Dec. 9, her 48th birthday, the Crown Princess released a carefully edited kansō-bun (an essay relating her impressions). Friday (Dec. 30) describes the contents as her “counterattack” in response to negative treatment by the media.

Her physicians had also criticized the media, particularly weekly magazines, for “reporting based on erroneous statements that can also be taken as malicious … and the inclusion of statements by nameless ‘sources.’

“Unless this is rectified,” they warned, “we cannot expect her smooth recovery.”

But a source in the palace points the finger of blame back at the doctors and their failure to clarify the nature of her ailment.

“If she can’t be cured, the doctors should say so unequivocally,” the source tells Friday. “The failure to come up with a clear prognosis is an invitation to turmoil. His Majesty (the Emperor) is angry.”

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